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The White House Flip-Flops on NSA Program Oversight

February 8, 2006

President Bush has flip-flopped once again. Just 24 hours after Vice President Cheney firmly declared the administration would not more broadly share information with key Congressional committee members regarding Bush's NSA domestic spying program, the White House reversed course - sort of.
The seeds of the turnabout were sown with yesterday's challenge from House Intelligence Committee member, Republican Heather Wilson of New Mexico. Wilson, who is also one of the few House GOP members to return contributions from Tom Delay's ARMPAC, said on Tuesday that she had "serious concerns" with the NSA's domestic surveillance efforts and called for an inquiry into the program. Her call followed Attorney General Gonzales' appearance Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, testimony which prompted GOP members including Senators Specter (R-PA), Brownback (R-KS) and Graham (R-SC) to raise the prospect of new FISA legislation.
On Tuesday evening, Vice President Cheney appearing on PBS Newshour drew a line in the sand, balking at expanded Congressional oversight and signaling White House opposition to Congressional legislative action:

We believe, Jim, that we have all the legal authority we need...I think it's important for us if we're going to proceed legislatively to keep in mind that there's a price to be paid for that and it might well in fact do irreparable damage to our capacity to collect this information.

By Wednesday afternoon, the strategic retreat by the White House was underway. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and former NSA head General Michael Hayden provided a limited briefing to members of Wilson's House Intelligence Committee. Though still severely limited in scope and operational details, the briefing led Democrat Jane Harman, a vocal critic of the administration's handling of the domestic spying program, to conclude hopefully, "the ice is falling." Harman also noted to PBS' Gwen Ifill:

Well, after hearing the vice president last night on your show, he must have had second thoughts overnight and today things are somewhat different, and I am encouraged.

Despite recent opinion polls seeming to suggest support for President Bush's domestic spying program, the White House has begun to lose control of events since Gonzales' Senate appearance on Monday. Senator Arlen Specter has discussed introducing legislation mandating FISA Court review of the President's program, with Kansas Senator Sam Brownback also supporting "crafting legislation to make the FISA court a more workable option." As Chuck Hegel, Republican of Nebraska and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded Wednesday:

Balance must be preserved between the executive branch and the legislature. And I think this is a clear example of where the balance has gotten skewed...The administration cannot unilaterally assume that they have the answers to get around or go over a law.

When it comes to its illegal domestic spying program, the Bush White House is feeling the heat and starting to bend. Just how far remains to be seen.
For more on the Bush administration statements reversed today, visit the PBS Newshour site. For the latest news, legal documents, statutes and other key materials regarding the domestic spying program, see the Perrspectives NSA Scandal Center.


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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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